A BRIGHTNESS BETRAYED

Pieces of Air in the Epic
, Brenda Hillman
[87 pp, $22.95, Wesleyan University Press]


There was an angle
     where I went for
     centuries not as a
     self or feature
     but exhaled as a knowing' 
          (from 'Street Corner')

As soon as I opened the book, these experimental lyrics of Brenda Hillman's reminded me of Robert Duncan, sharing with him that quality of a soft, dreamlike universe, although Duncan can also write with a precise sensuality (I later read the blurb on the inside front cover comparing Hillman to Robert Duncan and H.D.).

These lyrics don't, obviously, make prose sense and are not intended to. Rather they seek to touch us at a deeper level, to startle us into a new consciousness.  At their best, they take us into another world of the imagination, put images and concepts together in fresh and unexpected ways:

     I passed through nature
     into the next. Children
     running in unsupervised shadows.
     Last century's fountains learning
     not to lie. Risk
     to identify with only
     one element since one
     will die but in
     the summer air around
     each thought, something is
     built and avoided. You
     go through an arch
     and aren't the arch,
     just infinity of form,
     curve's curve of becoming.
          (From 'Statueless Architecture')

However, overall, I felt disappointed with the book. The lyrics which work well promise the reader an experience which in the end is denied us, leaving an impression of vagueness and vacuity.  At times, I was reminded of other writers I admire, but this only served to emphasis Hillman's weaknesses.

For example, '6 Components From Aristotle' reminded me of Anne Carson's MEN IN THE OFF HOURS, where classical references are juxtaposed against contemporary events. The subject of '6 Components From Aristotle' is the sinking of the submarine Kursk. But Hillman only seems to trivialise the event, writing how 'My life was a tangle at that time. Hopkins a bit of a Dido, pretty much a burning / magpie / nun'. Do we care? There are one or two strong images in the poem, for example, 'The submarine as a tube of air meant nothing to them.' But as it stands the poem comes across as more whimsical than anything else. 

The way Hillman combines concepts and images, philosophy and poetry, made me think of Rosmarie Waldrop, but Hillman often lacks Waldrop's ability to truly intrigue, to make us believe
her:

     fire was pulled from the seem of the leaf
     where death the boomerang
     moth had fed -:

     to the you born a thousand times,
     you too tired to punctuate
          (from 'Nine Untitled Epyllions')

I can just picture Hillman yawning at this point, which is a shame because other lines in the poem are much stronger. Perhaps it is simply a question of editing a little more, since there is a genuine lyric gift at work here. 

The blurb on the inside of the book tells us 'Pieces of Air in the Epic' is 'the second book of a tetrology that takes the elements - earth, air, water, fire - as its subject'. However, if the blurb had told me that this book is about one of the other elements, I would just as easily have believed it. The whole book has such an unanchored feel , that it's difficult to say it's really about anything at all.  Not that it has
to be about anything. I don't think that matters. But this is the claim made by the blurb.

I feel as if I am being unnecessarily harsh here. I think this is because I am frustrated by the fact that there are lines, entire passages even, in this book, which have the piercing quality of sunlight dispersing remnants of mist. There are lines that can amaze:

     Maybe she can                      see bones in the butterfly wings

or

     How strange to give up wanting. Life's action // amazes you

or

     Some animals are warm in paradise

But when we go to another line or turn to the next page we are back in the world of yawning whimsy again: 'If you tilt your head sideways // the smoothness // feels // something'.

This is, in Brenda Hillman's own words, 'a brightness betrayed'.

Although Hillman has published several books of poetry, I have to confess I am not familiar with her work as a whole. She is definitely someone whose books I will pick up in the bookshop to browse through if I see them, but it will take quite a lot more to make me actually want to take one home with me.

       Ian Seed 2005